When the dust settles on 2015, one piece of live television will stand alone for sheer adrenaline-inducing madness. On July 19, tens of thousands of fans around the world watched on open-mouthed as Australian surfing legend and three-time world champion Mick Fanning was attacked by a great white shark during a World Surf League final. This was a proper great white, somewhere around the 4m/1000kg mark. And Fanning fought it off. And his hero mate paddled to his aid. Now, I’ve never spoken to Mick Fanning, but I’ve spoken to his mum, and you bet your arse I’m going to write about it.
For those of you who are reading this blog but haven’t seen the footage, here’s a little highlights package. I know there are thousands of you out there.
There was a fin, followed by a much larger fin, then Fanning was fighting to stay on his board. The shark knocked him into the water as a wave rolled under them and they were gone. All the audience could see – all anyone could see, bar Fanning’s opponent, Julian Wilson – was an eight-foot wave cruising towards the shore and a couple of splashes out the back. At that point, those splashes out the back were Fanning being eaten by a shark(s). It was either one or two sharks, he’d just lost his board and everyone was watching the first major shark attack in professional surfing. As the wave broke, seemingly in slow motion, you fully expected to see blood in the water. It was terrifying.
The announcer shouted for help and implored Wilson, Fanning’s rival and mate, to get out of the water. Wilson made a beeline for the shark. As he got there, a jet ski arrived and Fanning pulled himself to safety with all of his limbs in tact. Fanning could be seen hunched over on the rescue board in the moments after the scare – he later said he could feel the adrenaline coursing through his veins. Then, there were the interviews. Fanning was raw and happy to be alive, and Wilson choked back tears as he described what had happened behind that wave. He said Fanning had turned to face the shark, wrestled with it and fought it off. Fanning confirmed he’d thrown punches. Memes ensued.
Anyway, to the point of this post and the only thing that makes it remotely worthwhile – an insight into Fanning’s remarkable life. Back in 2010, when I was working at a community newspaper in Perth, I went to a presentation by his mother and then manager, Liz Osborne. She told a particularly moving story about Fanning losing his brother, Sean, when he was 16 years old. Here’s what I wrote for the Stirling Times:
The Danish proverb, ‘a rich child often sits in a poor mother’s lap,’ refers to a mother’s unconditional love and sacrifice for her children – a sentiment typified by the story of Liz Osborne, mother of surfing world champion Mick Fanning.
Ms Osborne, a former mental health executive and now one of the most successful managers in world surfing, recently spoke about her life at a breakfast at Trigg Island Surf Life Saving Club.
Her candid recount of her own childhood, and Mick’s, took her and most of her audience from tears to joy.
Ms Osborne told a crowd ranging from young surfers to old acquaintances how she used sport to keep her five children occupied as she tried to support her family as a poor single mother.
She said she drew inspiration from her own mother, an amazing woman she had loved with every fibre of her being.
“I saw her, this strong woman who had very little, but gave me every opportunity and basically sacrificed her life for me and I guess I thought that was the way to be with my kids,” Ms Osborne said.
“We didn’t have much, but I was so happy because I had all my kids around me.”
Ms Osborne then spoke of the tragic death of her son, and Mick’s best mate, Sean.
Sean died in a car crash in 1998 when he was getting a lift home from a party he had attended with Mick.
Mick had declined the car ride and chosen to walk.
Mick’s friends stopped him before he walked straight in to the crash scene, but Ms Osborne said Sean’s death changed Mick forever.
“Sean and Mick always talked about how they were going to do the tour together. Mick did everything that Sean did, they were the closest of mates,” she said.
“Mick sat in his room for a week straight after that night, he didn’t speak, I don’t even know if he moved. When he did come out, he was screaming. He collapsed and he was just screaming.
“His dad was there that day and we just sat there on the floor in the hallway, holding Mick and crying. I don’t know what would have happened if there wasn’t that release.”
Ms Osborne told Mick that every day he should “go out at dawn, watch the sunrise, surf and be with Sean.”
She said her son resolved to earn a place on the surfing world tour in his brother’s honour.
Ms Osborne said she was overcome by emotion in 2007 when she watched Mick look to the sky and thrust his first ASP World Surfing Championship trophy into the air, tears streaming down his face.
“Mick is a good man; I hope the universe shines on him,” she said.
“He gives a lot of himself and his money to people who are not in as privileged a position as he is.”
By the power vested in me as a self-aggrandising blogger, I hereby recommend Mick Fanning for the title of “Aussie legend.” He started near the bottom, reached the top and stayed humble. He promised Sean he’d make the world tour and went on to win three world championships. He even clashed with a great white shark and emerged unscathed – but how? Maybe the universe was shining on him, as his mum put it, or maybe his big brother had his back.